Five Training Best Practices in Supporting Individuals with Autism and Intellectual Disabilities

Many people desire to work with individuals with autism and intellectual disabilities.  As we know, many organizations have lists of attributes, skills and knowledge needed for someone to be successful in the field.  So, what are the best practices in training staff so that they have the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful teachers for individuals with autism and intellectual disabilities?

Here are a few strategies that I believe to be best practices in training staff in the disabilities field:

  1. Teach learners the characteristics of the disabilities

A thorough  understanding of disabilities helps learners to understand why individuals may do what they do, and realize that it is not deliberate “bad” behavior, but rather coping mechanisms or attempts at communicating needs.  While we do want and need to help change those behaviors, we are more compassionate when we understand that a person is not doing something “on purpose”.

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  1. Adopt and convey a philosophy that everyone can learn something

While some disabilities may cause some limitations for some individuals, a disability does not define a person.  You never know what a person is capable of learning until you begin teaching. Teach learners to involve the individuals they work with in every aspect of their lives.  Instead of doing things for the individual, it is critically important to elicit cooperation from clients when you are assisting them to learn.  It may also be beneficial to provide specific examples to learners.

  1. Teach basic behavior theory concepts

These include the work of B.F. Skinner and others, operant conditioning and the behavior learning paradigm (stimulus- response-consequence), so that learners understand how learning occurs and is reinforced.  A strong foundation in behavior analysis will assist staff in assessing functions of behavior (i.e.- the reason a person engages in a specific behavior), thereby making it possible for them to identify and teach appropriate socially acceptable replacement behaviors.

  1. Convey a passion for working with individuals with autism and intellectual disabilities

Make it a point to share stories of success to excite learners about what is possible.  Stories of failure can be equally powerful as well. In the same way that people listen and respond to charismatic motivational speakers, they will absorb information/knowledge and skills from a trainer who approaches teaching with excitement and passion.

  1. Focus on on-the-job training opportunities

While there is much knowledge to be obtained in a classroom setting, direct support professionals need significant amounts of hands-on learning.  It is important for the supervisor and trainer to model the skills you want your staff to demonstrate, followed by coaching them through the same steps you demonstrated.  This is important so that they learn the correct way to teach from the beginning.   This should then be followed by having the direct support professionals do more, with less help; the supervisor/trainer will then provide feedback and additional coaching as needed.   Recently, I asked a former direct support professional who later went on to become a therapist, “What was the factor that contributed to his success as a direct support professional?”  His response was the coaching and presence provided by his direct supervisor.  He went on to state that his supervisor worked side by side with him and the other staff and provided on-the-job training and coaching opportunities.

What training best practices have you found to have the most impact within your organization?